At this point, we’ve all recovered from the landslide ban on alcoholic energy drinks that crossed the U.S. in November. We covered the opening act, here, when Michigan, quickly followed by Washington, banned the sale of alcoholic energy drinks. New York then reached an agreement with certain suppliers and distributors that halted caffeinated malt beverage sales in that state (review our coverage here). After that, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued warning letters to four caffeinated alcoholic beverage companies. The letters warned those producers that caffeine added to their malt alcohol beverage products constitutes an “unsafe food additive.”
Substances added to food products, which includes beverages, are considered food additives and are subject to review and approval by the FDA, unless the substance is specifically excluded from the definition of “food additive,” has been sanctioned by the FDA, or is recognized by qualified experts as adequately safe when used as intended. This third category is referred to as Generally Recognized as Safe or GRAS.
As many know, the FDA isn’t the usual stop for federal regulation of alcoholic beverages, but rather the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) which operates under the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA Act). In this instance, the FDA’s statements meant that the beverages in question were considered adulterated under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). The TTB takes the position that adulterated beverages, even if their formulas and labels have been approved by the TTB, are mislabeled under the FAA Act. This means that shipping and selling such beverages violates the FAA Act, which can result in license revocations and misdemeanor penalties. As the TTB stated, “…each producer and importer of alcohol beverages is responsible for ensuring that the ingredients in its products comply with the laws and regulations that FDA administers. TTB’s approval of a label or formula does not imply or otherwise constitute a determination that the product complies with the FFDCA, including a determination as to whether the product is adulterated because it contains an unapproved food additive.”
Producers of alcoholic energy drinks likely thought their products fell under the GRAS status. The FDA’s announcement ended that assumption. The question is, what other assumptions might it have ended? Alcoholic beverage producers have been using caffeine in their products for years, the most popular being coffee. In the FDA’s Questions and Answers section about the warning letters, it states that the letters are not directed at “alcoholic beverages that only contain caffeine as a natural constituent of one or more of their ingredients, such as a coffee flavoring.” However, in that same section the FDA also stated that, “Other alcoholic beverages containing added caffeine may be subject to agency action in the future if the available scientific data and information indicate that the use of caffeine in those products is not GRAS. A manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that its products, including the ingredients of its products, are safe for their intended use and are otherwise in compliance with the law.” Further, the TTB stated that if requested by the FDA, it would share “formulas for beers containing added caffeine that are approved under 27 CFR Part 25 [TTB regulations].” In the upcoming months, and perhaps years, it will be interesting to see how the GRAS standard is applied to other alcoholic beverages containing some form of caffeine.
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